Everyone who has heard my story or has read much of what I have written knows that I encourage lament. The Psalms invite us to lament before God in the midst of our storms. Several days ago my Psalms class discussed Psalm 88–which is one of the most profound laments in the Psalms, and some raised the question of whether the Psalmist crossed a line with God. Did the Psalmist say too much or go too far?
Lament is encouraged and modeled in Scripture, but there is a boundary. Israel complained in the wilderness in a way that God rebuffed. They complained in a way that demonstrated a lack of faith. They pursued unfaithful lament. Malachi, in this text, confronts just that kind of lament. It is quite appropriate for believers to lament their circumstances when they are enduing famine, sword or oppression. Believers lament, but Malachi addresses those whose complaints subverted faith.
Initially, Yahweh says through Malachi, “Your words have been hard against me!” “Hard”–in the Hebrew sentence–has the emphatic position. The words mean “strong” or perhaps “binding.” It puts a “hold” on God; it binds God. Israel’s response indicates that “hard” was understood as an attack against God; it is to say something “against” God.
What did they say? Malachi is quite specific. They say…
- There is no profit in lament or serving God.
- The arrogant are blessed.
- Evildoers prosper and escape judgment.
There is something about this that Yahweh regards as “hard.” What is at the heart of these three accusations “against” God? It seems the root is an assumed quid pro quo relationship with God. If I scratch God’s back, he will scratch mine. If I serve God, he will bless me. The language binds God to a mechanical process by which the good are blessed and the evil are judged. It is a legal approach to God that binds God to a particular behavior when I behave or misbehave. God has to bless me (e.g., remove suffering from my life and give me stuff that makes me happy?) if I follow him. God has no freedom; God has no room to maneuver. God is locked in by our obedience and lament.
Consequently, this lament subverts the freedom of God and thus fundamentally assumes that humans are the center of the universe rather than God. The sovereignty of God gives way to human obedience. When, in the eyes of this lamenter, human obedience is not blessed or human disobedience is blessed, then God is no longer just and there is no profit in serving God. One might as well simply give up on God.
Unfaithful lament asserts that there is no profit in serving God and this arises out of a motive to serve God for profit. This is exactly the question the satan asked Yahweh in Job 1. Does Job serve you for nothing? “Job is only interested in profit” is the implied accusation. But Job rejects the profit motive (cf. Job 21:16) and never curses God.
But did Job question God about the prosperity of the wicked? Indeed, he did (Job 21:1), as did Jeremiah (Jeremiah 12:1) among others (Psalms 37, 73). Why is that not unfaithful lament since Malachi’s audience does something similar? One key lies in the fundamental assumption of the sovereignty of God.
Job (as well as Jeremiah, for example) believed in the freedom of God. What Job confessed in Job 1:21 and 2:10 is that God is sovereign and he may “give” and he may “take away.” This is the divine prerogative. Job does not question that reality though he does ask why God does what he does. While he confesses that the “hand of God” has done everything to him (Job 12:9-10), he asks why. But he does not question God’s sovereignty (that is, God is God) and neither does he take the side of those who say that serving God is unprofitable.
Malachi contains this same contrast. There are those, who like Job, “fear Yahweh.” And they speak with each other. They did not speak “hard” words against God but rather spoke out of faith (fear). They are a community of believers (or fearers). According Malachi, God responds to their conversation with each other.
- Yahweh paid attention.
- Yahweh listened.
- Yahweh wrote it down in a “book of remembrance.”
This does not mean that people did not lament, but rather they talked with each other about their laments in the context of trust and esteem for the name of Yahweh. They may question God’s rationale and ask “why?” But they, nevertheless, trust (Psalm 13).
The “book of remembrance” is a metaphor that arises out of the Persian setting of the book. One might remember how the Persian Emperor Xerxes was reminded of how Mordecai saved his life when the “book of remembrance” was read to him one evening when he could not sleep. The book is a permanent record of events. When God listens to his people, it is permanently recorded in his heart and mind. God remembers his people.
I often suggest to my bible classes that we need not repeat every name in a prayer after we have asked for prayer requests. When the people of God talk with each other about their hurts, problems, praises, etc., they do not need to repeat every specific item to God in a formal prayer. Rather, God is present and listening to their conversation. He pays attention, hears and writes it down. God overhears his people talking and acts in response. Prayer requests are prayers since God is listening!
Most importantly, the charge against God is unfounded. There is a deep contrast between God’s people and the wicked. God’s people are his “treasured possession” which is the language of Exodus 19:5-6 (also 2 Peter 2:9; Ephesians 1:14). God loves Israel as his own child and will “spare” them.
But it is a different story for the wicked. God knows the difference between the righteous and the wicked. It may not appear to many that he does, but God knows who serves him and who does not. And God will clarify this difference in no uncertain terms when the “day of the Lord” comes.
So, how do we lament? We lament in faith, trusting in the sovereignty of God. Faith is shattered when we permit present circumstances to subvert divine sovereignty. Faith does not live for profit and neither does it bind God to some kind of mechanistic, legal principle (such as quid pro quo). Rather, faith trusts that God’s righteousness and goodness will reveal itself and demonstrate the justness of God’s grand project to reconcile with the human race.
We lament, but we trust (Psalm 13), just like Jesus on the cross whose words “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me” were also laid beside “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”